By Ray Chelstowski
Joe Walsh has been making noise within the world of rock since he joined The James Gang. From there his career has been defined by both commercial success and critical acclaim. As the creator of some of rock’s most memorable songs, Joe has established a persona that marries clever and witty songwriting with some of the most admired guitar work in the business. Few can count Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page among their most ardent fans. In that regard, mention his name to up-and-comers, and it’s quickly followed by equal amounts of awe and respect.
So it’s no wonder that when he decided to build a concert platform that could benefit American veterans, that those loyal up-and-comers would drop what they were doing on tour and lend a hand.
This September in Fairfax, VA, Joe is hosting VetsAid, a concert designed to raise money for and awareness of organizations on the community level that are helping out vets in trouble. Joining him on stage will be Keith Urban, the Zac Brown Band and Gary Clark Jr. Together they will kick off what all hope will become an annual event that helps not only vets but their families as well. A Gold Star kid himself, Joe has long had a personal connection with veteran affairs, and has quietly behind the scenes lent his support in a variety of ways.
We caught up with Joe right after his incredibly well–received run with Tom Petty and talked about VetsAid, the possibility of a James Gang return to the studio, an important 2018 milestone and of course a frank discussion about the current state of music and the electric guitar.
GOLDMINE: As the son of a WWII vet who spent two years of his life in a prisoner-of-war camp and who was declared dead, I feel that there can’t be enough support out there for our vets. That said I feel like the music industry in particular has done a lot to raise awareness of this need, especially through the Wounded Warrior Project where you have everyone from Trace Adkins to Gene Simmons lending their support. It’s really great. So what prompted you to act now specifically and why with a new initiative instead of getting behind some of these other established organizations?
JOE WALSH: There are large organizations that are definitely helping and you need that on a national level. The thing that really did it for me is in my touring and traveling I’ve come across some small organizations in smaller towns, some of them operated by vets and they are really in the trenches, really doing great work on the local level. And these are county organizations, in small towns, and I have come across them and they are the people who really need help just to keep going. I thought about it for a long time and a number of times the government announced they were going to end the war and bring everybody home. But this is an ongoing war with no end in sight. I just thought it was time for me to take it up a notch.
GM: When I look at your line-up for the concert I think it’s really interesting. I didn’t know that you were tight with Gary Clark Jr. and Keith Urban. When you thought about the line-up initially how did you see it taking shape or form? Seems like a real guitar slinger event!
JW: Well yeah. A great role model is Willie (Nelson) with Farm Aid. That started off pretty humble. I was at the first one and it’s really become a huge family that takes care of themselves, and a big event. So we’re gonna start humble. Everybody is out on tour so it’s kinda late to really put people into this because everyone is busy. I wasn’t sure I could really put it together in time this year. Keith Urban actually called up and asked “Can I come?” And that was huge. I’ve gotten to know Gary Clark Jr. and he is up-and-coming. Man, he is going to be around for a long time. He’s an amazing kid and he said he wanted to jam.
And I had met Zac Brown a couple of times and he actually made a hole in his tour so that he could come and do it, and that’s amazing because it’s a great, great roster. And of course they all decided that I could play, too. I’m the special guest.
JW: Keith Urban called and asked “Hey, do you think we can all play together?” And I said “Yes!” So we’re all gonna get our sets done and then I think we’re all gonna go on stage and hear what each other’s got. It’s gonna turn into a really good deal!
GM: The concert will be held at the EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, VA. You have said that you want this to be an annual event. Do you see this always residing in Virginia or do you see it getting mobile and moving around the country kind of like Farm Aid did?
JW: So what we’re trying to do is get this launched this year and have it happen every year and probably move around the country. We’re gonna try and make it a hub for vets to go to. We will have at the concert a listing of the first batch of groups we are helping and it’s an ongoing deal. As we come across these smaller organizations we will list them on the website and it will grow and grow. We’re also going to start a scholarship for the Gold Star kids and just help where we can.
GM: You’ve really gotten this up and running quickly. Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival took some time to get its footing. Have your experiences at any of these other shows helped you move faster?
JW: I’ve been to a couple of them (Crossroads Festivals) and the model of it seems to work really good. I was amazed at the musical reaction. Everyone went out of their way to make it possible. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to get a show together.
GM: A lot of readers may not know how involved you have been for years with vets, and specifically are known for the free guitar lessons you have given to wounded vets at Walter Reed. What is your approach to teaching and what do the vets want to learn most from you. For example, is there any signature Joe Walsh riff that is most requested?
JW: At Walter Reed I went there a lot and I didn’t know what to think. Some of the guys weren’t alive when some of the records came out so I didn’t know to what extent they would even know about me. Some of them are real guitar nuts and so we had a class and showed them licks and played for them. But every one of them was an individual story and that’s what really touched my heart.
GM: Seems like there was more activism in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I immediately think of No Nukes. Why do you think this current musical generation has been so quiet?
JW: I think that’s totally on, my friend. In the ‘70s we all had an attitude and we thought we were going to change the whole world, and that was pretty naïve. But what I’ve realized is that music is very healing and people come to hear music and they go home different … different somehow. I think the digital age has eaten a lot of this stuff. You know that whole infrastructure of records and record stores, record albums and what was on the radio, the mentality of the radio has been left along the wayside by the digital age. And music has changed a lot and those of us from the ‘70s and ‘80s are kind of seniors now and it’s in transition. I don’t know what the new generation of musicians is going to do. I don’t know how they’re going to afford to make records with no help and no royalties.
GM: To that point, the Washington Post recently ran an article about the death of the electric guitar called “Why My Guitar Gently Weeps.” In short, it points to the staggering state of the electric guitar business, with Fender and Gibson sales sinking and Guitar Center stores being downgraded by Moody’s. They contend that it’s all because the guitar is not a central component of the music that kids listen to today. Do you think this is just cyclical or something more lasting?
JW: I agree with that 100 percent, and that’s what I’m saying. The digital age has kind of eaten that. The mighty guitar army doesn’t mean a lot in today’s music but you gotta remember that it’s not an art form anymore. It’s turned into part of the economy, and it’s all owned by “men with ties.” They are interested in the corporate quarter so they operate against a market study of what’s selling and whatever that is they make more of. And, now it’s all on computers. A chunk of the music out there, nobody even played on. It’s one guy with a computer. It’s manufactured now. You don’t write your songs together and go into a studio and set up all in the same room to record and play your songs together. That’s not happening. It’s all manufactured, and you can tell because there’s no mojo in it. Digitally it’s perfect, but perfect music doesn’t sound good to me. That’s the plight that the new generation of musicians is going to have to figure out. Who are we and what do we have to say and how are we going to say it? I think they will figure it out. The music goes on. But I’m not sure they are going to make the guitar as important as it was to our generation.
GM: Next year, believe it or not, your album “But Seriously Folks…” turns 40. Any special plans to celebrate the milestone. Any plans to take it out on the road?
JW: Well I do now (laugh)! That would be a great tour wouldn’t it? That’s fantastic. I’ll put that in and get back to ya!
GM: A couple of years ago there were rumors that you were knocking about a studio in Cleveland with Jim Fox and Dale Peters. Any chance we might see some new material from The James Gang?
JW: Yeah! I did check in with them and they’re alive and well in Cleveland. We’ve talked about it. Some of that was what we were just talking about, like how would this fit into the digital age. And so I don’t think we could plan a big comeback and tour and everything, but you’re absolutely right. We could make more music and get it out there. We could own a small venue. That’s one thing The James Gang could do. We could go in there and kick ass, and think that young people could really benefit from hearing how to do that. The best thing there is a three piece band on a good night. The worst thing there is a three piece band on a bad night! When it works there’s nothing like it.
GM: Looking at set lists from your current concerts I see that you have worked Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” into the mix. Such a great song and seems like a great fit for your voice. How did that come about?
JW: I came in one day for sound check and the band was playing it. They had to play a few songs to get the room sounding right. So I walk in and they were playing and I said “What the hell is that? Never mind my songs. I wanna play that!” I have a great band, and when we’re not on stage they are always coming up with stuff they like and then they bounce it off me. I think that it’s a kick in the ass and a wakeup call for me and I love them for it. That song is so relevant and plays great live!
GM: Before we go, for folks who can’t get to VetsAid but want to contribute how do we direct them to a place where they can help?
JW: If they want more concert information or tickets go to joewalsh.com. Also, vetsaid.org is up and running and you can make a contribution. If you’re a vet and you have related needs, the site is also a resource center. That’s your way to start getting help.